November 18, 2012

Scientific American: 2011

Scientific American

Radioactive Smoke

[The WHO estimates that over a million people a year die from smoking related lung cancers.]
If polonium had been reduced through methods [long] known to the [tobacco] industry, many thousands of those deaths could have been avoided.

(January 2011, p 67)

The Last Great Global Warming

Cretaceous HothousePaleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM)[Anthropocene]
Speed of WarmingSlowModerateFast
Rate of Carbon Release
(petagrams per year)

< 2 [1]9 to 25 [2]
Rate of Temperature Rise
(degrees Celsius per 100 years)
0.0000250.0251 to 4
Absolute Temperature Rise
(degrees Celsius)
(Over 20 million years)
5 [to 9]
(Over 20 thousand years)
2 to 10
(Projected over the next 200 to 300 years)
Duration (years) Millions Thousands [3] Tens to Hundreds
Main underlying causeVolcanic eruptionsVolcanoes
Methane bubbling up from the ocean bottom
Peat and coal fires
Thawing permafrost
Fossil-fuel burning
Environmental changeOceans absorbed carbon dioxide slowly so did not acidifyDeep sea acidificationAcidifying oceans
More extreme weather
Glacier melting
Sea-level rise
Life's responseNearly all creatures had time to adapt or migratePoleward movement of many species
Habitat loss
Coral bleaching

  1. [The] rate of [atmospheric carbon] injection during the PETM was less than two petagrams a year …
  2. [We] are now pumping nine petagrams of carbon into the atmosphere every year …
    [Consequently,] C02 concentrations are rising [around] 10 times faster now than they did during the PETM. …
    Projections that account for population growth and increased industrialization of developing nations indicate that rate may reach 25 petagrams a year before all fossil-fuel reserves are exhausted. …
  3. It took nearly 200,000 years for the earth's natural buffers to bring the fever down.
(Lee Kump, Implications: Lessons from Past Warmings, July 2011, pp 42, 44-45)


Sacred Salubriousness

Is Morality Relative?

Can We Feed World?

The Last Great Global Warming

Casualties of Climate Change

No Commercial Advantage



  • Sacred Salubriousness.
    Michael Shermer.

    [In 2000] psychologist Michael E. McCullough [University of Miami] and … colleagues published a meta-analysis of more than three dozen studies showing a strong correlation between religiosity and lower mortality …

    [In 2009 he and] Brian Willoughby … reported the results of a meta-analysis of hundreds of studies revealing that religious people are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors [and] less likely to … engage in risky [ones].
    Religion provides a tight social network that reinforces positive behaviors and punishes negative habits and leads to greater self-regulation for goal achievement and self-control over negative temptations.

    Self-control is the subject of Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister’s new book, Willpower, co-authored with science writer John Tierney.
    [Research] shows that young children who delay gratification (for example, forgoing one marshmallow now for two later) score higher on measures of academic achievement and social adjustment later.
    [Baumeister and Tierney] cite research showing that
    religiously devout children were rated relatively low in impulsiveness by both parents and teachers. …
    Religion also improves the monitoring of behavior, another of the central steps of self-control.
    Religious people tend to feel that someone important is watching them [God or coreligionists].
    The underlying mechanisms of setting goals and monitoring one’s progress, however, can be tapped by anyone, religious or not. …

    Brain scans of people conducting [prayer and meditation] rituals show strong activity in areas associated with self-regulation and attention. …

    [The] 19th-century explorer Henry Morton Stanley … proclaimed that
    “self-control is more indispensable than gunpowder,” especially if we have a “sacred task,”
    … (his was the abolition of slavery).
    [You] should select your sacred task, monitor and pace your progress toward that goal, eat and sleep regularly (lack of both diminishes willpower), sit and stand up straight … and surround yourself with a supportive social network that reinforces your efforts.
    (p 79)

    Would you life to know more?


  • Thought Experiments.
    Joshua Knobe: Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, Yale University.

    Is Morality Relative?

    [Psychologist] Edward T. Cokely of Michigan Technological University and philosopher Adam Feltz of Schreiner University gave study participants a story about people who hold opposite views on a moral question.
    Subjects were then asked whether one disputant had to be wrong (the antirelativist answer) or whether there might be no single correct position (the relativist answer). …

    They gave each participant a standard measure of the personality trait "openness to experience," and they were able to determine which participants were more open to experience and which were more closed.
    The results showed a significant correlation: the higher a participant was in openness to experience, the more likely that participant was to endorse the relativist answer. …

    [Psychologists] Geoffrey Goodwin of the University of Pennsylvania and John Darley of Princeton University measured participants' ways of thinking by giving each of them a logic puzzle that involved configuring blocks in a certain way.
    Although the problem seemed straightforward on the surface, there was actually a trick: one could only get the right answer by looking at the problem from multiple perspectives. …
    Those who got the problem right were especially likely to offer relativist answers. …

    We have a series of different studies, conducted by different researchers, using quite different methods … pointing toward the same basic conclusion: people feel drawn to relativism to the extent that they can open themselves to other possible perspectives.
    (pp 38-41)

  • Can We Feed World: Sustain The Planet?
    Jonathan Foley: McKnight Presidential Chair of Global Sustainability and Director, Institute on the Environment, University of Minnesota


    Food Access

    More than one billion of the earth's seven billion people suffer from chronic hunger.
    Poverty and poor distribution of food must be overcome to provide adequate calories for everyone.

    Food Production

    By 2050 global population will be two billion to three billion greater, and a larger proportion of people will have higher incomes, so they will consume more per person.
    Farmers will need to grow twice as much as they do today.

    Environmental Damage

    To reduce harm, agriculture must
    • stop expanding into tropical forests,
    • raise the productivity of underperforming farmland (which could boost production 50 to 60%),
    • use water and fertilizer far more efficiently, and
    • prevent soil degradation.

    Bumping Up Against Barriers

    Society already farms roughly 38% of the earth's land surface, not counting Greenland or Antarctica. …
    Much of the remainder is covered by deserts, mountains, tundra, ice, cities, parks and other unsuitable growing areas.
    The few remaining frontiers are mainly in tropical forests and savannas, which are vital to the stability of the globe, especially as stores of carbon and biodiversity. …

    [Only] 60% of the world's crops are meant for people:
    mostly grains, followed by pulses (beans, lentils), oil plants, vegetables and fruits. Another 35% is used for animal feed, and the final 5% goes to biofuels and other industrial products. …
    Typically, grain-fed cattle operations use 30 kilograms of grain to make one kilogram of edible, boneless beef.
    Chicken and pork are more efficient, and grass-fed beef converts nonfood material into protein. …

    [Agriculture] has already cleared or radically transformed 70% of the world's prehistoric grasslands, 50% of the savannas, 45% of the temperate deciduous forests and 25% of the tropical forests. …

    Humans use an astounding 4,000 cubic kilometers of water per year, mostly withdrawn from rivers and aquifers.
    Irrigation accounts for 70% of draw. …

    Fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides are being spread at incredible levels … causing widespread water pollution … hypoxic "dead zones" at the mouths of many of the world's major rivers … [and compromising] coastal fishing grounds. …

    Agriculture is also the largest single source of greenhouse gas emissions … accounting for about 35% of the carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide we release. …
    [The] vast majority of emissions comes from
    • tropical deforestation,
    • methane released from animals and rice paddies, and
    • nitrous oxide from overfertilized soils.

    Five Solutions

    1.     Stop expanding agriculture's footprint
      Many proposals have been made to reduce deforestation. …
      Under REDD [Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation], rich nations pay tropical nations to protect their rain forests, in exchange for carbon credits.
      Other mechanisms include developing certification standards for agricultural products so that supply chains can be assured that crops were not grown on lands created by deforestation.
      [A] biofuel policy that relies on nonfood crops such as switchgrass instead of food crops could make vital farmland newly available.

    2.     Close the world's yield gaps
      We can boost the productivity of our best farms — raising their "yield ceiling" through improved crop genetics and management.
      Or we can improve the yields of the world's least productive farms — closing the "yield gap" between a farm's current yield and its higher potential yield. …
      [Yields] could increase substantially across many parts of Africa, Central America and eastern Europe [with] better seeds, more effective fertilizer application and [more] efficient irrigation …
      [Closing] the yield gap for the world's top 16 crops could increase total food production by 50 to 60%, with little environmental damage.

    3.     Use resources much more efficiently
      Primary strategies include:
      • drip irrigation (where water is applied directly to the plant's base and not wastefully sprayed into the air);
      • mulching (covering the soil with organic matter to retrain moisture; and
      • reducing water loss from irrigation systems (by lessening evaporation from canals and reservoirs).
      [In] China, northern India, the central U.S. and western Europe … farmers could substantially reduce fertilizer use with little or no impact on food production.
      [Only] 10% of the world's cropland generates 30 to 40% of agriculture's fertilizer pollution.
      Among the actions that can fix this excess are policy and economic incentives, such as payments to farmers
      • for watershed stewardship and protection,
      • for reducing excessive fertilizer use,
      • for improving manure management (especially manure storage, so that less runs off into the watershed during a storm),
      • for capturing excess nutrients through recycling, and
      • for instituting other conservation practices.

    4.     Shift diets away from meat.
      Globally, humans could net up to three quadrillion additional calories every year — a 50% increase from our current supply — by switching to all-plant diets. …
      [Even] small shifts in diet, say, from grain-fed beef to poultry, pork or pasture-fed beef, can pay off handsomely.

    5.     Reduce food waste
      Roughly 30% of the food produced on the planet is discarded, lost, spoiled or consumed by pests.

    Moving Toward a Networked Food System

    In principle, our five-point strategy … could increase the world's food availability by 100 to 180%, while significantly lowering greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity losses, water use and water pollution.
    [All] five points (and perhaps more) must be pursued together.
    No single strategy is sufficient to solve all our problems.
    (pp 44-47)


  • The Last Great Global Warming.
    Lee Kump: Professor of Geosciences, Pennsylvania State University.

    Fossil Fuel Ignition

    [The] PETM began [55 million years ago] with the burning of fossil fuels.
    At the time the supercontinent Pangaea was in the final stages of breaking up, and the earth's crust was ripping apart, forming the north-eastern Atlantic Ocean.
    As a result, huge volumes of molten rock and intense heat rose up through the landmass that encompassed Europe and Greenland, baking carbon-rich sediments and perhaps even some coal and oil near the surface.
    The baking sediments, in turn, released large doses of two strong greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane.
    … the volcanoes probably accounted for an initial buildup of greenhouse gases on the order of a few hundred petagrams of carbon, enough to raise global temperature by a couple of degrees. …

    Methane Gun

    A second, more intense warming phase began when the volcano-induced heat set other types of gas release into motion.
    Natural stirring of the oceans ferried warmth to the cold seabed, where it apparently destabilized vast stores of frozen methane hydrate deposits buried within.
    As the hydrates thawed, methane gas bubbled up to the surface, adding more carbon into the atmosphere.
    Methane in the atmosphere traps heat much more effectively than C02 does, but it converts quickly to CO2. …

    A cascade of other positive feedbacks probably ensued at the same time as the peak of the hydrate-induced warming, released yet more carbon from reservoirs on land. …

    Cascading Feedbacks

    Droughts that would have resulted in many parts of the planet, including the western US and western Europe, most likely exposed forests and peat lands to desiccation, and in some cases, widespread wildfire, releasing even more C02 into the atmosphere.
    Fires smoldering in peat and coal seams, which have been known to last for centuries in modern times, could have kept the discharge going strong.

    Thawing permafrost in polar regions probably exacerbated the situation as well. …
    (p 43)

    [We ran] a computer model that simulated the warming based on what we knew about the changes in the carbon isotope signatures from the Arctic cores and the degree of dissolution of seafloor carbonate from deep-sea cores. …

    The scenario that best fit the physical evidence required the addition of between 3000 and 10,000 petagrams of carbon into the atmosphere and ocean [over a period of 20,000 years] …
    (p 44)

    Unlike those of the PETM, modern plants and animals now have roads, railways, dams, cities and towns blocking their migratory paths to more suitable climate.
    These days most large animals are already penned into tiny areas by surrounding habitat loss;
    their chances of moving to new latitudes to survive will in many cases be nil.
    (p 45)


  • Casualties of Climate Change.
    Alex de Sherbinin: Senior Researcher, Earth Institute, Columbia University; Deputy Manager, Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center, NASA.
    Koko Warne: Researcher, Institute for Environment and Human Security, United Nations University.
    Charles Ehrhart: Global response to climate change coordinator, CARE international.

    [Many] of the world's 38 small island states could disappear by the end of this century. …
    In India … 40 million people would be displaced by a one-meter sea-level rise. …
    Models … suggest an increase in total monsoon rainfall but a decrease in the frequency of rain, implying more intense rainfall in fewer days.
    Shifts in the seasonality of river flows (as winter snowpack declines and glaciers shrink) would affect the agricultural livelihoods of several hundred million rural Asians, as well as the food supplies of an equal number of Asian urbanites. …

    The frequency of natural disasters has increased by 42% since the 1980s, and the percentage of those that are climate-related has risen from 50 to 82%.
    [In] 2008, climate related calamities drove 20 million people from their homes — more than four times the number displaced by violent conflict. …
    • [In Mozambique] catastrophic floods and periodic droughts has caught rural populations in a double bind.
    • [In the Mekong Delta] the scale [of flooding] in recent years has surpassed historic precedent, and the [region] is facing catastrophic losses of productive land from … sea level rise.
    • [In Mexico and Central America] tropical storms and cyclones have displaced thousands, and drought looms as a constant danger. …

    [Further research is required to determine] where mass migrations are likely to occur [and, to develop] international and regional plans to help those forced to leave their homes.
    (p 52)

    Policy Solutions

    • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions to safe levels.
    • Invest in disaster risk management, which has been shown to decrease the likelihood of large-scale migration.
    • Recognize that some migration will be inevitable and develop national and international adaptation strategies.
    • Establish binding commitments to ensure adaptation funding reaches the people who need it most.
    • strengthen international institutions to protect the rights of those displaced by climate change.
    (p 56)

  • Radioactive Smoke.
    Brianna Rego: PhD, History of Science, Stanford University.

    "No Commercial Advantage"

    In contrast to external scientists, industry scientists never publicized or published their research on polonium. …
    [From] the late 1970s and early 1980s … scientists and executives [at Philip Morris] debated whether the company should publish its own research.
    [However, this occurred] during during a lull in external scientific publications … and the tobacco men were wary of disturbing [the] peace.

    [For example, in 1977] scientists at Philip Morris had completed a draft of a paper entitle "Naturally Occurring Radon-222 Daughters in Tobacco and Smoke Condensate," which the authors wanted to submit to Science.
    The director of product development emphasized … to another Philip Morris scientist that he was wary of publishing the manuscript.
    That scientist responded:
    It has the potential of waking a sleeping giant …
    The subject is rumbling …
    I doubt we should provide facts.
    What worried [the] legal department was that [the] manuscript essentially agreed with published research: there was polonium in tobacco, and it is harmful.
    [On legal advice] the manuscript was denied approval for publication. …

    The tobacco manufacturers … continued to monitor external research [and to debate] the drawbacks and benefits of various ways to reduce polonium in cigarette smoke …
    [Among] them
    • adding materials to tobacco that would react with lead and polonium and prevent their transfer to smoke and
    • developing a filter that would block polonium vapor. …
    [It was] estimated [in 1975] that 30-50% of polonium could easily be removed from fertilizer and that washing could eliminate another 25%.
    Adding to that the effects of a filter, the polonium … could have been almost completed eliminated.
    R J Reynolds:
    Removal of these materials would have no commercial advantage
    Polonium would be an excellent first "poison" to ban from tobacco.
    It is a single isotope, rather than a complex ingredient of smoke. …
    The industry's four decades of research could give the FDA a head start toward[s] getting concrete results.
    Moreover, washing tobacco leaves [might also help to remove the] lead, arsenic and cadmium. …
    (p 67, emphasis added)

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